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Grandfather to the famous Beat Generation author, the original William S. Burroughs was a numbers guy who invented one of the country’s first mechanical calculators. You can check out his device in person at the Wells Fargo Building in Philadelphia.
Behind the facade at Broad and Walnut is a miniature museum filled with artifacts from 19th century American banking and commerce.
Set just off the lobby of the historic skyscraper, which played a starring role in the 1983 Dan Aykroyd-Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places,” the museum is open to the public five days a week. Not many people know that, however, and attendance is exceedingly slim, according to staff.
“No one ever comes in here,” said a woman custodian stationed near the entrance on a recent February afternoon. “Never.”
Granted, there’s plenty of other ways to get your history on in Philadelphia. But the small display tucked inside this Avenue of the Arts stalwart is worth ducking into, if only to give yourself more time to marvel at the gorgeous architecture that surrounds it.
Historic building with a unique shape
The Wells Fargo Building began life as the Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company Building in 1928.
It was placed on the National Historic Register some 50 years later, recognized for its Beaux Arts details and unique H-shaped tower that stretches all the way from Walnut to Sansom.
By the turn of the millennium, Wachovia Bank had made its headquarters at 123 S. Broad St., which has a facade made of granite and limestone, with giant doors of thick bronze.
After a 2008 merger and acquisition — which also transferred the naming rights of the sports stadium where the Sixers and Flyers play — Wells Fargo lent its name to the 29-story, 400-foot-tall structure.
The museum opened there a year later, in 2009. It’s one of a dozen free exhibitions operated by the San Francisco-based financial conglomerate, which is now the fourth-largest bank in the nation.
In recent years, Wells Fargo has not been without controversy. It was bailed out by the U.S. government after the economic collapse that happened around the same time it launched the museum, and in 2017, the company was sued by Black and Latinx homeowners in Philly for “a widespread pattern or practice of discrimination.”
Dollars all the way down
Appropriately, money is a big focus for the exhibit.
The company originally came about because in 1852, bankers Henry Wells and William G. Fargo decided they wanted to extend services to California. Other partners in their financial firm — one American Express — didn’t want to chase the gold, so the pair formed a new venture.
At the Philly museum, one wall holds various coins and bank notes used by federal and state governments over the past two centuries.
It details the creation of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, showcasing several of the rare “Double Eagle” gold coins made there. There’s also a paper gold certificate, various defunct tenders issued by individual states, and “fractional currency” notes, which were used when it was hard to find metal for official coins.
Twain’s ‘cradle on wheels’
Wells Fargo became famous for ferrying gold and other packages across the 19th century American frontier, and the building’s main lobby includes a restored stagecoach from that period.
Head inside the museum to see a fuller version up close — and even get a selfie taken while you sit inside.
This particular bright red Concord stagecoach dates to 1863, according to museum curators, and was considered the “pinnacle” of urban transit. Mark Twain described riding in one as being like “a cradle on wheels.”
Worth its weight in gold
The 1800s edition of Wells Fargo carried plenty of non-financial goods and mail across the country, but its existence was rooted in gold — not just in the banking sense, but because that was the reason for a lot of the transnational messaging and commerce.
Behind the Broad Street facade in Philadelphia are several samples of the precious metal, in various form.
There are lumpy nuggets of the stuff, made when dust was melted down, and rocks of granite laced with golden seams. There’s a place where visitors can lift chunks of various metals one at a time, to feel gold’s weight, and an old-fashioned scale that was used for calculating its worth.
A 4-month trip from coast to coast
One section of the display focuses on Lewis and Elizabeth Gunn, who moved their family from Philly to California so they could get in on the gold rush.
Lewis left for the West Coast in 1849, where he first worked as a miner and eventually owned a drugstore and published a local newspaper, the Sonora Herald. Elizabeth followed in 1851, taking her four kids on the long journey around Cape Horn at the tip of South America — said to have taken around 139 days — before eventually landing safely on the other side of the country.
Their lives are chronicled in the book “Records of a California Family.”
The telegraph clicks into play
In its early years, two technologies threatened Wells Fargo’s stagecoach dominance — the railroad and the telegraph — so the company adopted both and made them integral to the business.
The first transcontinental telegraph was completed in 1861, allowing near-instantaneous communication across the fast-expanding nation. At the Philly exhibit you can check out several telegraph machines from this time.
Burroughs’ patented ‘calculating machine’
Another technology would soon revolutionize banking: mechanical calculators.
Though he never worked directly for Wells Fargo, the museum makes sure to shout out William S. Burroughs for his critical invention.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Burroughs grew frustrated with the fact that as a bank clerk working long hours, it was easy for one tiny addition error to throw off a client’s entire ledger and account.
In 1885, he filed the first patent for a “calculating machine,” and by the turn of the century they were used by banking institutions everywhere.
Burroughs, who eventually moved south with his family, was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of fame.
Visit for free or set up a tour
The Wells Fargo Museum in Philadelphia is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 6 p.m. Fridays.
There’s a guided tour available every other Wednesday around lunchtime, and custom appointments for groups or individuals can be made via phone (215-670-6123) or email.